Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton will square off at 9pm tonight on MSNBC. The cable network is promising two hours of slash and burn politics, even coyly promoting the event much in the same way the UFC promotes title fights. Contentious music plays on the hour, as thumping graphics of Clinton and Sanders splash across the screen. A countdown timer rolls on the bottom corner.
This will no doubt drive up ratings, but anyone looking for a firestorm is going to be disappointed. Here’s why:
Sanders is out of ammunition.
There’s really nothing new for Bernie to pull out of his arsenal that we don’t already know about Clinton. Expect the familiar refrains of Wall St. donations, Goldman Sacs speeches, and Super Pacs. His latest assault is over who is a better progressive. It’s an argument that appeals to his base of young voters and the far-left liberal wing of the party, but a disagreement over the definition of the term isn’t going to light up the night.
Another reason not to expect anything new from Sanders is because everything he’s done so far is working. The phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” certainly applies. One thing he can’t risk right now is his momentum. Any loss to Clinton would give the impression that he peaked in Iowa and has nowhere to go but down.
Clinton has nothing to gain.
Anticipating an all but certain loss in New Hampshire, Clinton will continue her debate strategy of on-the-ropes counterpunching. If she does spark a fuse, it will be on gun legislation or her opponent’s history of criticizing the president. One is a familiar attack that’s been mildly effective, the other can be explained by her looking forward to South Carolina where president Obama is highly popular.
In fact, Clinton’s entire week in New Hampshire should be seen through the scope of the race ahead. By staying put and pouring resources into the state, she forced Sanders to focus on an election he was likely to win anyway. She won’t jeopardize that advantage by risking a gaffe, or waste her time trying to singe a fireproof challenger.
Focus on the moderators.
MSNBC pulled out all the stops by choosing Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow to moderate tonight’s debate. The king of political numbers and queen of biting wit will do everything they can to ignite a controversy within the Democratic Party. Expect interjections and challenges to every answer and rebuttal.
The network is just dying for Sanders and Clinton to have a moment that can dominate the news cycle until Tuesday’s primary. It’s doubtful that seasoned politicians like Hillary and Bernie are going to pour any gasoline on already inflammable race. There may be smoke, but the fire will have to wait.